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According to Anton Beneslavskywhat we see currently happening in Siberia is the result of a global problem, summarized by this key concept: fires fuel climate change and climate change fuels fires.
Over the last two decades, the typical fire regime in the Siberian region has changed dramatically. Where some parts of the taiga historically burned once every 50-80 years, the Fire Return Interval (FRI) has now shortened to burning once every 5 years. Anton reminded the audience that typical Russian fire dynamics have two different peaks:
One in spring, connected to the intentional agriculture burning of dry grass.
One in summer, which corresponds to the summer wildfires:
In the last year, both peaks started earlier:
According to Anton, a Russian fire expert and volunteer firefighter, this year is one of the worst Russia has experienced so far. "He hasn't broken the record yet, but he will be close to it," Anton stressed. 22,7 million hectares of wilderness have already been burned, including 13,6 million hectares of forest.
Beneslavsky also explained that highter temperatures have favored this increase of fires. Moreover, these high temperature conditions are not unique to this year: they have been increasing over the last three years.
These fires are more intense on average due to changed weather conditions. For instance, strong winds have turned the otherwise regular fires that Russia experienced into fires with an extreme behavior.
As stated above, over the last 100 years the taiga burned every 50-80 years through low intensity surface fires. These fires would consume the surface vegetation and instigate processes of regrowth. Moreover, the dominant species in the taiga never suffered from these fires because their plant composition and distribution was sufficiently resilient and resisted destruction to the low intensity fires. Nonetheless, over the past year Greenpeace Russia has witnessed a considerable increase in the proportion of destructive fires.
Finally, Beneslavsky highlighted that CO2 and Black Carbon emissions contribute to this positive feedback loop of climate change: more black carbon is emitted into the atmosphere through these unusually destructive arctic fires, spreading ash over thousands of kilometers of ice. This darker-colored ash, in turn, lowers the albedo effect (or sun-reflecting effect) inherent in the ice, which then contributes to it melting more quickly, exposing new levels of permafrost and volatile, flammable compounds. Species composition then continues to change due to these fires, and forests degrade to less diverse ecosystems. Anton recognizes both the global origins of this problem, and the local and global solutions needed to address this ecosystem shift. While Siberia may seem like an isolated area, the health of its forests has important implications for all of us.
Anton Beneslavsky was born in Moscow, Russia, joined Greenpeace Russia in 2012 as a forest activist, and in 2019 he joined Greenpeace International as a Forest Fire Suppression Capacity Building Advisor, certified as Commander of Wildland Fire Incidents by the Russian Forestry Institute (VIPKLH).